Budget has failed to create an India that can compete

The Economic Survey said rightly that no country had ever grown fast without buoyant exports, and called for policies to generate a virtuous cycle of rising exports, GDP, savings and investment. The budget fails comprehensively to do this. Far from taking India to 8% growth, it could take India down to 6%.

Why have exports hardly grown for five years? Because India is a high-cost economy that cannot compete with its Asian peers. India has among the highest-cost land, labour, capital, electricity, railway freight rates, air freight, corporate and income tax rates. A thrust for 8% growth requires lowering every one of these rates. Alas, the budget goes in the opposite direction.

Back in 2007, finance minister Chidambaram grasped the importance of being competitive, and decreed that import duties should be reduced till they approximated the Asian norm of 10%. That was achieved by a series of cuts till 2008, and helped fuel India’s biggest boom. Then Arun Jaitley said India would cut its corporate tax rate to 25% to compete with Asia.

This vision has been abandoned by Nirmala Sitharaman. She has done nothing to bring down the high costs of so many items. She has yet to cut corporate tax to the promised 25% rate for large companies with revenue of over Rs 400 crore. Meanwhile corporate tax in many Asian countries has fallen to 15-20%.

The new peak income tax rate of 42.7% is out of line with rates in several competing countries. Sitharaman wants to attract foreign investment and talent, but 42.7% income tax is a clear disincentive. Foreign portfolio investors organised as trusts suddenly find they have to pay 42.7% tax, and are exiting, causing a crash in stock markets.

Many Indian businessmen will move to low-tax havens like Singapore and Dubai, (7,000 billionaires have already left in recent years). Corporate promoters will keep profits in companies instead of distributing them as dividends that are highly taxed, so the policy in antidividend. A wedge as high as 17.7% between the top income-tax rate and corporate tax rate is a recipe for proliferating tax avoidance. The additional revenue sought by the budget may not accrue at all.

An elementary precept of economic liberalisation is that a tax on imports becomes a tax on exports. It creates a high-cost economy, appreciates the exchange rate, and induces investment to shift from export production to import-substitution. It induces retaliation against Indian exports, as the USA has demonstrated. Far from seeing this as a problem, Sitharaman wants to encourage it. Jaitley in last year’s budget started the dismal trend of raising import duties on overt 40 items just for protection. Sitharaman expands the list much further this year, declaring explicitly that she aims to reduce import dependence, protect the MSME sector, and curb non-essential imports. This is the language of the licence-permit Raj that trapped India into the Hindu rate of growth of 3.5%.

Infant industry protection for temporary periods has created competitive industries in some countries. But the new levies have no sunset clause. The industries being protected by Sitharaman are not infants, merely traditional BJP vote banks.

Attracting large foreign investment to boost investment requires stability and predictability in tax rates. But constant changes in income-tax surcharges and import tariffs represent tax policy driven by lobbying, not transparent principles. Foreign investors will not respond to her incentives if these can change at political whim in the next budget.

India urgently needs new land laws to slash land prices and acquisition costs; new labour laws that reduce effective cost through flexibility: lower fiscal deficits that help reduce the interest rate; electricity reforms that end high industrial rates to subsidise farmers; rail reforms that end high freight rates that subsidise passenger traffic; lower taxes on aviation spirit to lower air freight; and a shift from high support prices for crops to direct cash benefits for farmers to lower agricultural prices and make them internationally competitive.

This is a huge and politically difficult agenda. Nobody could expect Modi to grasp such thorny nettles in an election year. But despite winning a landslide Lok Sabha victory, he remains in election mode because some state election or another is always a few months away.

Modi and Sitharaman need to realise that the need of the hour is not to just to compete with the Congress and regional parties. More important is the need to compete with China and other competitors like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. They all have lower costs and faster export growth.

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